Jocko Willink: BJJ and MMA Highlights

John ‘Jocko’ Willink is a retired Navy SEAL officer, author, entrepreneur, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) black belt

Early Career and Military Service

Willink became a student of BJJ under Fabio Santos during his military service in Iraq. Fabio Santos trained under Rolls and Rickson Gracie, two of the most revered disciples in the sport.

In 1992, Willink was introduced to the sport of BJJ by a SEAL master chief. The master chief’s grace, finesse, and brutality captivated Willink who was still fresh to active combat and viewed BJJ as a way to maintain his mental and physical fitness.

Under the tutelage of Santos, Willink began to learn the tenets of BJJ and hone his craft. Willink continued to practice BJJ during his multiple tours of duty in Iraq. During his service, Willink would earn his blue belt under Santos. Willink remained a blue belt for five years.

In October 2010, Jocko Willink retired from military service and returned home to San Diego, California. Willink’s appreciation for BJJ never diminished, but his active training in the martial art stopped with his military service. Seemingly by chance, an old friend from the SEALS, Jeff Higgs, visited Willink and asked him to spar.

Willink recalls sparring with Higgs a number of times and losing every match. Jeff Higgs, also a San Diego resident, had found a BJJ gym and was training regularly. Willink’s frustration with his inabilities led him to join the BJJ gym that Higgs was attending. At the gym, Willink would resume his BJJ training, honing the arts of mounts, grapples, and submissions.

Key Takeaways

  • Willink began BJJ during his military service in Iraq.
  • Willink began his BJJ studies under Fabio Santos.
  • Willink credits Jeff Higgs with reintroducing him to BJJ after military retirement.

Later Career and BJJ Legacy

Willink rose through the BJJ belt ranks steadily, no doubt because of his military training and steadfast discipline. Still, the sport of BJJ prioritzes personal growth over comparative technical ability, which means it takes a long time to attain the different belt ranks in BJJ. Despite his natural talent and athleticism, Willink trained for approximately ten years before he attained his black belt.

In the Jocko Podcast, Willink’s talk show, the ex-SEAL discusses his journey from white belt to black belt. Willink explains that the journey to becoming a black belt is as much a mental journey as a physical one. BJJ, like other forms of martial arts, is founded on the notion of self-improvement.

Overcoming Frustations When Starting Jiu Jitsu - Jocko Willink

Willink further explains that no two black belts are the same. Each black belt is relative to its recipient’s ability and potential. In BJJ, a black belt is a symbol that a martial artist has reached their potential of becoming a black belt, which is why it takes years to earn the belt.

BJJ is a martial art that challenges its disciples to beat the current version of themselves. Willink likens the study of BJJ to personal growth, stating that the martial art is not about achieving arbitrary standards of success, but reaching your potential as a practitioner of the sport.

Jocko earned his own black belt from Dean Lister, a prominent mixed martial artist who, like Willink, trained under Fabio Santos. Jocko Willink considers the discipline of BJJ to be a lifelong commitment to learning, which led him to open his own mixed martial arts gym with Dean Lister, Victory MMA.

Key Takeaways

  • BJJ belts are awarded according to personal growth and technical ability.
  • Willink received his black belt after ten years of training.
  • Willink views BJJ as a lifelong commitment to learning.
  • Willink opened his own MMA gym with friend and teacher, Dean Lister.

Victory MMA

Victory MMA specializes in mixed martial arts, but is more generally a place for people to work on their physical fitness. The gym also offers Crossfit and other fitness classes. Since the opening of his gym, Jocko Willink has talked at length about the mental and physical benefits of BJJ on his podcast.

BJJ is a whole body workout. The aggressive nature of the sport means that martial artists have to condition their stamina and endurance in order to succeed. In addition to the physical demands of the sport, the study of BJJ requires that students be calm, relaxed, and humble in order to succeed.

At Victory MMA, Willink emphasizes the importance of training both mind and body. In order for a BJJ student to rise through the belt ranks at Victory MMA, they must adopt the attitude of a lifelong learner

Braggarts and blowhards don’t last at Victory MMA. To Willink, BJJ is not a sport of showmanship and accolades, but a way of being that helps people build confidence and intuition.

Key Takeaways

  • Victory MMA is a multi-discipline fitness gym in San Diego, California.
  • Victory MMA’s mission is to help students reach their highest potential.

Competitive Career

Willink’s competition history was largely unrecorded. He competed in numerous BJJ tournaments organized by the uniformed services, but never participated in the pop-culture mixed martial arts circuit.

While Willink never competed in public facing competitions like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Fight Nights Global (FNG), he is well-respected in the professional mixed martial arts community.

Key Takeaways

  • Willink’s military service prevented him from participating in mainstream BJJ competitions.
  • Willink is well-respected in the MMA community despite his lack of commercial notoriety.


John ‘Jocko’ Willink’s career as a BJJ master began during his military service in Iraq. Willink studied under the masterful Fabio Santos who trained Willink’s future business partner, Dean Lister.

Throughout his military career, Willink practiced BJJ as a way to maintain physical and mental fortitude in the face of his dangerous and demanding job as a Navy SEAL officer. Willink retired from military service in 2010 and returned home to San Diego.

In retirement, Willink remained active, becoming an author and entrepreneur. During this post-military phase of life, an old friend from the SEALs inspired Willnik to resume his formal study of BJJ. Willink returned to BJJ and steadily rose through the belt ranks.

After over a decade of disciplined study, Jocko received his black belt from friend, training partner, MMA legend, and teacher Dean Lister. Together Willink and Lister founded Victory MMA in San Diego, California. Willink’s gym emphasizes the inextricable link between mental fortitude and physical fitness in BJJ.

In addition to Willink’s many business ventures, he currently works alongside Dean Lister as an instructor at Victory MMA which specializes in MMA, including BJJ, but also offers more general fitness classes, like Crossfit. 

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